San Francisco Holocaust Monument, Bev Meldrum Photography
Names are often significant in the Bible. Think David (beloved of God) or Isaac (he laughs). One has struck me recently: Lazarus. There are two men named Lazarus in the Gospels. The name means ‘God has helped’. This seems odd to me. You could look at the oddness of this name from the point of view of both the two men named Lazarus whom we meet in the Gospels.
The first of these is the one raised from the dead by Jesus. We know how this story ends (spoiler alert: I told you in the previous sentence), so it seems to us readers fairly obvious as to why his name is so suitable. Much is obvious if you know the end of the story. We don’t know much about Lazarus before his (first) death; but it’s fair to assume that after his recall from his own funeral procession he gained a whole new perspective on the appropriateness of his name. It may have previously come to his mind when he was looking for a place to park his donkey in rush hour, but soon that would grow faint by comparison.
This isn’t the Lazarus who concerns me, though. It’s the other one – the one who doesn’t exist. Well, he does exist, of course; but in a symbolic sense as opposed to a literal one. He appears in a strange parable at the end of Luke Chapter 16; a poor man who is carried daily to the outside of a rich man’s home to beg for whatever he can get. He’s in such a state that dogs would come and lick his sores. This is the one God has helped? Really?
We know how this story ends too. He goes to heaven; the rich man to hell. So we know that from an eternal perspective that God has indeed helped him. He just won’t see it until his death. We mustn’t rush to that, however. If we do we’re in danger of the terrible error of saying ‘well the poor will be alright in eternity, so let’s not worry about them now’. That would be to miss the point of the parable, and we don’t want that, do we now?
Parables are not one-for-one correlation stories. We can’t say x in the story equals the wider truth of y in every instance. With that in mind, we should also beware that we don’t miss what the parable might be trying to say to us. It’s here that Lazarus’ name becomes important. In this parable, Lazarus is important because he has a name. Abraham and Moses are both referred to by name. In a Jewish story you’d expect that. The rich man is named … well, we don’t know. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just ‘the rich man’. Lazarus – he of the dog-licking and begging – is named as one whom God helps. The rich man – outside whose house Lazarus daily begs, just the other side of the wall and security spikes, just in view of the CCTV – has no name. He is anonymous.
Names matter. When we get to know someone we start with a name; couples who have a stillborn baby are strongly advised to give their child a name for very good reasons; a soft-drinks company has made a marketing splash by putting names on their cans for people to buy until they find one bearing their own title. Yes, names matter. Why this, then? Why no name for the rich man?
It’s part of God’s great reversal of all things. The world honours the rich and successful; we know their names well. The one sleeping under a blanket in the doorway. He’s ‘homeless’. Not ‘the one God has helped’ or ‘beloved of God’; just ‘homeless’, ‘poor’, ‘dirty’, ‘smelly’, ‘beggar’. God’s kingdom reverses this; the unnoticed, non-achieving dependants are named; the succesful and feted rich are irrelevant.
We know how this story ends, so it’s OK. We know this isn’t really about rich and poor, it’s about knowing Jesus and being known by Him? Right?
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s definitely about being known by Jesus. He knows who is living truly in the kingdom of God and who isn’t.
This is a parable that too often I keep at arm’s length, keeping away the uncomfortable truth that too often I am the unnamed one rather than the named one I prefer to see myself as.
Am I sure about that?
Try these name-cancelling labels. Which do you use?
Liberal, conservative, gay, straight, black, white, man, woman, young, old, middle-aged, happy, sad, able, disabled, sick, well, happy, sad, depressed, normal, bigot, Jew, Moslem, Christian, atheist, adult, child, teenager, abuser, abused, bully, victim.
Recently someone I’ve known for years told me of his plans to marry the man he loves. It took him years to decide I was safe enough to tell. That’s down to how people who wear labels like ‘evangelical’, ‘Christian’ or ‘church’ are seen and how we act and speak. Years to feel safe. He has a name, but I can’t use it here for he must remain safe.